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Tennis, ballet put study in motion


January 11, 2007

It has been happening since the dawn of science. A researcher tries to answer a specific question in a clearly defined area and finds the process leading down an entirely unexpected path.

It's how one of Avi Wiezel's explorations has been taking him from bricklayers to ballerinas – by way of tennis.

Wiezel, an associate professor in the Del E. Web School of Construction in the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering, set out to devise computer models to measure, evaluate, teach and improve the physical skills involved in construction work.

“The abilities of construction workers in performing such tasks as bricklaying have a significant effect on construction costs, quality, time and safety,” Wiezel says.

By using computers to monitor motions of experienced construction workers as they built brick walls, Wiezel dissected the combination, coordination and trajectories of their various movements. In attempting to analyze agility, accuracy, strength and quickness, Wiezel found himself collaborating with ASU dance professor Naomi Jackson and ASU biomechanics professor Richard Hinrichs to look at how movement skills in sports and dance are evaluated.

“We were seeing ways to calculate what separates experts from novices based on their dexterity in coordination of basic types of movement,” he says.

A pivotal discovery was made when a test subject (an ASU electrical engineering graduate student) with no construction experience performed bricklaying with a high degree of skill. What accounted for this surprising proficiency?

“We found out he had been captain of his college varsity tennis team,” Wiezel says.

The student's tennis talents proved to precisely match the physical adeptness required for efficient bricklaying. Wiezel, an avid tennis player, envisioned how to expand his study to describe and measure the ensemble of movements necessary for optimal performance in tennis.

Wiezel undertook an exacting study of the elements of tennis skills by working with several ASU colleagues in mechanical, industrial and civil engineering with whom he had formed the Sports Engineering Group.

As in construction, performance in tennis is enhanced by the tools of the trade. So the research group looked at the interaction between player, equipment and environment, arriving at formulas for how the variables in performance results could depend on the smallest details of racquet weight, string tension, air temperature, humidity and altitude.

Such intricate measurements open the possibility for methods to assess and develop movement skills in a variety of sports and similar physical tasks.

“We hope to come up with a whole theory and practical design systems to help improve performance,” Wiezel says. “It could give us better methods to scout for the most promising athletes or to recognize the budding talent of the next great ballerinas.”

So how does this work its way back to construction and engineering?

“Maybe one of the best ways to recruit good bricklayers is to go out to the tennis courts and watch for the better players,” Wiezel says, winking.